The 3 Great Festivals of Japan

by GoWithGuide travel specialist

Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, the three most popular places visted by tourists each year, and famous for the three greatest festivals of Japan. Festivals dating back over a thousand years, and attracting spectators from all over the world. if you are lucky enough to be in Japan when any of these events are taking place, be sure not to miss them, as each is spectacular in its own way:

Tenjin Matsuri (Osaka)

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In 951, two years after Osaka’s Tenman-gu Shrine was established, a sacred spear, a kamihoko, washed up on the beach in front of the shrine, and when a Shinto ritual was held at the funeral hall established on that beach, the procession of ships escorting the divine spirits out (funatogyo) was the beginning of the Tenjin Matsuri, a festival boasting a 1000-year-old history that is one of Japan’s three great festivals. Centering upon Osaka’s Tenman-gu, there is a festival-eve vigil on July 24th with July 25th as the actual day of the festival. In recent years, gyaru mikoshi and a dedicated fireworks show have been established as festival events, and the energetic festival itself is continuing to carve out a history while being sensitive to the generations.

The gyaru mikoshi, which celebrates 35 years in 2015, is popular as an event lending grace to the Tenjin Matsuri. It’s an event that was started as a cheerful creation of a local amenity to promote the area and boost Osakan culture. The official name of the event is the Tenjin Matsuri Women’s O-mikoshi, and up to 80 women between the ages of 15 and 30 are openly recruited, and on July 23rd, the day prior to the festival-eve, the women carry a portable shrine weighing 200kg from Tenjinbashi Suji Shopping District and parade it to Tenman-gu Shrine. On July 24th, there is the excitement of crowning Miss Tenjinbashi.

Following the festival at the main hall of Tenman-gu Shrine on July 24th, the 1000-year-old festival launches with the Hokonagashi-shinji ritual. At the main shrine on the 25th from about 3 p.m. the rikutogyo procession begins with moyo-oshi daiko drummers leading a total of 3000 people wearing brilliant clothing and carrying the mikoshi in a huge parade for 3km to Tenjinbashi, the starting point for the funatogyo. From about 6 p.m. the ships carrying the mikoshi depart on Okawa River, an amazing procession that has 100 boats. And from 7:30, on the banks of the river, the festival reaches a climax as a fireworks show is held with 4000 explosions.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Tenjin Matsuri
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Tenjin Matsuri
Tours of Tenjin Matsuri

Gion Festival (Kyoto)

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The Gion Festival, one of Japan’s three great festivals, is a religious celebration that has continued at Yasaka Shrine for 1100 years, and for 1 month from July 1st to July 31st every year, it’s held at the shrine and in the central area of Kyoto. Starting with the Yamaboko Junko parade and the Shinko Festival, various events unfold. At the Shinsen-en Temple where a giant garden of the ancient capital existed, 66 halberds representing the 66 territories within Japan at the time stand in worship of the Gion gods, and the prayers for the prevention of disasters began from here. The yamaboko floats are decorated with ornaments from all places and times so that they have also been called moving museums, and since they fulfill the role of cleansing the city of evil spirits during the parade, they are promptly dismantled once the parade ends.

The parade is separated into the saki-matsuri (former parade) and ato-matsuri (latter parade), and the 3 days prior to each parade are called the yoiyama. The yoiyama events for the saki-matsuri are held on July 14th-16th, with paper lanterns on the yamaboko floats being lit up and goods such as charms and folding fans being sold. In addition, boarding passes are sold so that you can ride on the floats during the yoiyama only. On the 15th and the 16th, the streets are closed off to automobile traffic, so many people enjoy the street stalls that are set up. On the day of the saki-matsuri, the 17th, 23 yamaboko floats depart at 9 a.m. from the Shijo-Kawaramachi area, and the Shimenawa-kiri event at Shijo-Fuyacho and the Tsuji-mawashi event where the floats are turned at every intersection are the biggest highlights. From 4 p.m. on the same day, the Shinko Festival is held and 3 portable shrines (mikoshi) from Yasaka Shrine are paraded through Kyoto until about 8 p.m. Events for the ato-matsuri are held on July 21st-23rd, and although street stalls are not present, at the ato-matsuri on the 24th, 10 floats start from Karasuma-Oike and go on a course that is the reverse for that of the saki-matsuri. The spectacle of these giant yamaboko floats, reaching up to a maximum of 12t, parading through the streets of Kyoto is amazing. The saki-matsuri which is the livelier of the two parades is a great event that cannot be missed.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Gion Festival
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Gion Festival
Tours of Gion Festival

Sanno Festival (Tokyo)

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The Sanno Festival has a history which began from the Edo Era, and is said to be one of the Three Great Festivals of Edo alongside the Kanda Festival and the Fukagawa Festival. Under the protection of Edo Castle, it was first launched as an annual festival of Hie Shrine which garnered considerable support from the shogunate, and that tradition continues even today. The elegant and refined procession that evokes history is exactly like the world of a dynastic picture scroll. It is truly unique to have this appearance of traditionally costumed people walking through the streets in an atmosphere of a city center. It is held in alternate years with the Kanda Festival which is also one of the Three Great Festivals of both Edo and Japan, and its scale and grandeur makes the Sanno Festival the ideal celebration as one of the three great festivals representing the nation.

The Sanno Festival is held in the middle of June in even-numbered years. During the Edo Era, floats and mikoshi (portable shrines) were allowed to enter Edo Castle, and so generations of shogun enjoyed the event that was called the Tenka Festival. The Jinkosai which is the procession of 500 people garbed in ancient court costumes is the biggest highlight of the Sanno Festival. The 300m festival parade is beautifully rich in pageantry with its series of ornamented floats and mikoshi. Departing from Hie Shrine in Akasaka, the procession winds itself through Tokyo Station, Nihonbashi, Ginza and other districts in the heart of the city and stops off at the Imperial Palace. During the long period of the festival which lasts for about 10 days, there is a variety of lively events held such as “The Children’s Festival” that prays for good health and growth for children as represented by kids wearing traditional costumes, the “Kagurabayashi” featuring traditional entertainment, and tea ceremonies. With these dignified yet friendly events, this is the perfect opportunity to get a feel of Japan while easily enjoying a festival.

Admission: Free

Guidebook from Planetyze about Sanno Festival 
Reviews from TripAdvisor about Sanno Festival 
Tours of Sanno Festival